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Barbecue University™

Chicken Labels Demystified

September is National Chicken Month. We’re taking the opportunity to celebrate grilled chicken in all its polymorphous glory. In the coming weeks you’ll learn how to grill whole chicken, chicken breasts, thighs, and of course, how to spatchcock a chicken. We’ll revisit the subject of Steven’s book Beer Can Chicken and other outrageous ways to grill and smoke chicken.

Today we start with chicken speak. What do free-range, hormone free, cage free, certified organic, all-natural, and other chicken terms mean (if anything)? Do confusing labels on supermarket poultry have you crying “fowl?” Here’s what you need to know.

Hormone Free: Since growth hormones have been banned in poultry in the U.S. since 1959, this claim is just puffery, meaningless affirmation that the producer is obeying the law.

Cage Free: Unless they’re laying hens, poultry raised for meat in the U.S. is not confined to cages. But “cage free” does not usually mean the birds live outdoors in idyllic conditions. More likely, they are crowded into a building, room, or other enclosure.

Free Range or Pasture Raised: USDA language is vague regarding these terms, requiring only that birds must have “access to the outdoors.” In some cases, this could be the equivalent of a single doggy-type door for a huge flock, meaning the avians have no awareness of the outdoors or incentive to find it. So in practical terms, they live their lives indoors. However, the Scientific Committee of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has recommended more specific standards which must be met if poultry can be labeled “Certified Humane.” (See below.)

Certified Humane: Always look for this label when buying poultry. It warrants that the bird must meet HVAC standards for Free Range or Pasture Raised, both of which establish specific outdoor requirements for each animal including square footage, time spent outdoors (up to 6 hours per day), and access to fixed or mobile housing. Other similar endorsements listed on the label could be American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Approved, or Global Animal Partnership.

Organic: This term means the birds are free range and have been raised on a diet of organically-grown food, meaning no genetically-modified grains (GMOs), chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides.

No Antibiotics or No Antibiotics Ever: The latter term is more explicit, ruling out the administration of antibiotics at the hatchery. No Antibiotics Ever is self-explanatory. There is no danger to the consumer in either case, as the birds must be drug-free before processing. (Antibiotics leave their systems after 5 to 7 days.)

Vegetarian or All Vegetable Diet: Free range or pasture-raised chickens and turkeys are naturally carnivorous and might snag the occasional bug. This label simply means the birds were not fed bone meal, fish meal, or other animal by-products.

Natural or All-Natural: This is simply a marketing term and is essentially meaningless.

No Water Added or No Retained Water: Some poultry—particularly turkeys—are injected with liquid or broth before sale. This increases the cost of the protein to the consumer as they are paying for water weight.

Air Chilled: I first became aware of this term when Nebraska’s Smart Chicken (aka Tecumseh Farms) sent poultry to the set of my TV show, Project Smoke. Curious, I learned most chickens in the U.S. are chilled in communal baths of chlorinated water after slaughter and plucking. Disturbingly, the birds can absorb as much as 10 percent of their weight in this contaminated water. Smart Chicken chills their chickens with cold circulating air; the birds never touch, keeping cross-contamination to a minimum, and they absorb no water.

Bottom line? When you can, buy chicken that is organic, Certified Humane, and air chilled.

Check out these great chicken recipes from across Planet Barbecue:
Jamaican Jerk Chicken
Rotisserie-Smoked Chicken
Yakitori Like They Make It in Japan
Chicken Tikka Kebabs
Salt Brick Grilled Chicken

Check out these products that’ll make your chicken grilling process better:
Best of Barbecue Himalayan Salt Brick and Salt Brick Press
Instant Read Thermometer
Lodge Pre-Seasoned Sportsman’s Charcoal Grill